When we look back in the annals of Steelers’ greats, the one thing that’s always been a constant is a consistent and productive pass rush. This last season is perhaps the biggest proof of that, as the unit led the league in sacks for a whopping fifth-consecutive season, with 55, but also boasted the league’s most ferocious rusher, T.J. Watt.
All Watt did was rack up 22.5 sacks, which tied the single-season record set by Giants’ Hall Of Famer Michael Strahan back in 2001. He did that while being supplemented by All-Pro defensive linemen Cam Heyward, who came in second on the team with 10. Watt’s running mate on the other side, Alex Highsmith, put up a respectable six in his sophomore season, but could year three equate to big things?
In recent memory, edge rush tandems like Joey Porter and Jason Gildon, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley or the aforementioned Watt and Bud Dupree wreaked havoc on opposing offenses, but Dupree left for the big payday last offseason, signing with the Titans. Enter Highsmith, who while drawing plenty of one-on-one matchups across from Watt, put up only six sacks in 16 games. He played fairly well, especially against the run, and it’s evident the team thinks highly of him entering year three, as they didn’t reach out in free agency or the draft to make supplanting him a priority.
One thing that was missing last season was the presence of rock-solid defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was fresh off his finest season as a pro in 2020, racking up 11 sacks. Dupree had the privilege of playing in the defense while Tuitt was available, and his last two seasons in the black and gold were his best, as in 2019 he posted a career-high 11.5 sacks and in 2020, he put up eight before tearing his ACL in a week 12 game versus Baltimore.
Dupree, a first-round pick of the team in 2015, didn’t produce a six-sack season until year three, so it’s fair to say Highsmith may already be on a better career-arc than Dupree.
This past offseason, Tuitt retired, due to the stunning loss of his brother as well as injuries. To help rectify this, the team grabbed Texas A&M standout defensive end DeMarvin Leal in round three of this year’s draft, and at one point, Leal was talked about as a first-round pick, so his potential is there.
The real eye-opening move though was whenever free-agent Larry Ogunjobi became available via a failed physical with Chicago, with whom he signed a big deal earlier this offseason. Formerly a draft pick of Cleveland, he had experience playing in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense, and had his finest season as a pro last year for the Bengals, racking up seven sacks and a team-leading 12 tackles-for-loss. He played collegiately at Charlotte, also Highsmith’s alma mater, and has already been on-record stating he’s looking forward to reuniting.
As Ogunjobi is assimilated into the defense, it should only supplement the idea that Highsmith should be able to make yet another leap in his production in year three, as he’s a tremendous pass rusher, not a street free agent the team tried to have fill Tuitt’s shoes.
His rookie campaign, he obviously didn’t become a starter until the Dupree injury, and finished with only two sacks. Last year, he tripled that mark with six, so with a reinvigorated defense, Highsmith should most definitely be within striking range of a double-digit sack mark. Watt has already invited Highsmith to come up to Wisconsin and participate in workouts with his brothers.
Their regimens are the stuff of legend and obviously has helped launch Watt’s career on a Hall Of Fame trajectory. The time spent would be a wise investment for Highsmith if he truly hopes to unlock his true potential and join the previously-mentioned pass-rush greats the team has fielded.